Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews
This will hardly come as news to anyone with young children, but Disney’s Frozen was kind of a big deal. In grossing US$1.27 billion at the international box office it became both the highest grossing animated film and the highest grossing movie musical in history. It showed that even in the era of Pixar there is still a market for the traditional Disney animated musical while subverting that very formula, giving us a Disney princess movie with a feminist twist in which the true love that saved the day was not the romantic love between our princess heroine and her handsome rescuer, but the familial bond between sisters. Five years on, it is with much anticipation that they are again deviating from the formula, this time by giving the film a theatrical sequel, something Disney animations have never really had before. Even mega hits like The Lion King, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid only received direct-to-video follow ups.
In their childhood, Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna’s (Kristen Bell) parents told them of an enchanted forest which lay to the north of Arendelle. Protected by an impenetrable fog, it was ruled by the four spirits – earth, air, fire and water. Years later, with Elsa now queen of Arendelle, she starts to hear the spirits calling her from the forest. Soon, Arendelle’s fires go out. Its fountains run dry. The earth quakes. It is as though the elements are revolting against the city. Believing the events to be connected to the call she has been hearing, Elsa, along with her trusty companions Anna, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Olaf (Josh Gad), venture north in search of Ahtohallan, a mythical place that may hold the answers not only to what is going on in Arendelle, but to Elsa’s powers and their family’s history.
Frozen started from a place of disharmony. The palace gates were shut. Elsa was living in self-imposed isolation. Anna was feeling estranged from her sister. This opening scenario made the film instantly intriguing. Frozen II, however, starts from out in a much happier place. Arendelle appears prosperous under Elsa’s reign. Our heroes remain a tight-knit group of friends. Kristoff is even working up the courage to ask Anna to marry him. As such, while we enjoy being back with these characters, it takes a while to get going and for our interest to be peaked. It is not until the mechanisms of the plot take out characters out of the city and start separating them into smaller groups and pairings that you start to feel some of that spark that made the first film work.
While seeking to retain the essential flavour of the original, returning screenwriter and co-director Jennifer Lee delivers a more complex and darker film. Moving away from traditional Disney notions of good and evil into slightly more nuanced territory, we have a mystery without a defined villain. There is no plot to be thwarted. Rather, this is a tale about uncovering truths and learning that the things might not be as you have been brought up to believe. Alongside being more nuanced, however, it is also a bit messier. Where Frozen was so focused with a clear cut message, there is a lot more going on in the sequel. The feminist rewriting of the Disney princess tradition continues. Again sisterly love takes precedence over matrimony. But this is also a film about colonialism and its negative impacts on both first peoples and the environment, as well as being a film about growing up and maturing, and about young people having to deal with the repercussions of previous generations’ sins. While these ideas are not clearly separate from one another, nor are they perfectly overlapping. There are a lot of balls in the air, and while none of them are necessarily dropped, it makes for a busier film.
Arguably the most pressure coming into this sequel was on songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. While ‘Let it Go’ got all the plaudits, Frozen was wall to wall bangers. The soundtrack for Frozen II – the ultimate difficult second album – is not as immediately striking as the first, though it does grow on you with time. Idina Menzel still gets her opportunity to cut loose with ‘Into the Unknown,’ a propulsive number which is sure to be the song that gets put forward for awards consideration (although, controversial opinion, I think the Panic at the Disco cover that plays over the end credits might be the catchier version). The songwriters have also been emboldened to take some bigger swings this time around, none more so than Kristoff’s 80s inspired power ballad ‘Lost in the Woods.’ The crowd pleaser, though, is Olaf’s ‘This Will All Make Sense When I am Older,’ a little ditty he sings to himself as he walks alone through the enchanted forrest in an effort to repress his trauma in real time. The song plays into a narrative thread which sees Olaf wrestling with experience of ageing and, in his mind at least, becoming more mature and wise (Olaf also gets the film’s biggest laugh for a moment in which he re-enacts the story of the first film for the benefit of a group of people they meet on their journey).
While there is plenty to enjoy in Frozen II – the fun characters, solid songs, relevant themes and impressive animation – there is no escaping that it feels like a sequel, a little something extra that is dependent on our existing investment and good will from the first to make it work. Even in the moment you can’t help but feel that, rather than sitting alongside the original in the way that the Toy Story sequels do (at least until Toy Story 4), Frozen II will only ever be a supplement to the main attraction.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Frozen II? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.